One thing that has a huge impact on the sustainability of anything is how much margin you have – how much space remains in your life once your obligations are met. You can have margins of time, of money, of energy, of love – anything that can be measured, and anything you can be either stingy or generous with. The opposite of having margin is living on the razor’s edge, where you have to be at the top of your game constantly just to keep up with your obligations. We’ve all been there, and I’ve certainly been there more often than not, in terms of time, money, energy, love – you name it. But our family’s new commitment is to build margin in every area so we have the freedom to pursue new but risky ideas, enjoy our relationships more, be more generous, and be capable of sacrificing when the long-term reward is worth it – all the things that make life worth living. We’ve carved out margin in our finances and in our health, and our current challenge is carving out margin in our time. My husband and I are notoriously overcommitted, and we’ve discovered that we usually have no one to blame but ourselves. More than that, overcommitting ourselves is like knocking over that first domino – it sends our margins of energy, health, household management, and ultimately finances (I’m just too tired to go after that next client) flying.

So how do we keep ourselves from making those commitments that seem like such good opportunities in the moment? Lots of time-management and personal productivity experts can help with the specifics of tracking commitments (our favorite is David Allen’s Getting Things Done), but I’ve found one thing that helps more than anything else in creating margin – and anyone who knows me knows what I’m going to say next – practicing the spiritual disciplines. These practices have been tested by time to help us discern and invest in what is real, what is eternal, what is life-giving, what we have been specifically created to do, and what is worth doing at all. The practice that’s helped me most in maintaining a margin with commitments (i.e., time) is the simple discipline of carving out a margin of time in the morning, before anyone gets up, and sitting quietly and listening. To God, to my relentless list of commitments racing through my head, to whatever’s speaking inside me. And then, if I can sit still and listen long enough (thirty minutes or so), everything seems to settle down into proper priority and wisdom speaks, helping me intuit what is most important (both eternally and temporally), what is secondary, and what will take care of itself without my help. Then I know what to do for the day, thus creating a margin of time on a daily basis, because I now know when I can stop for the day. Historically, of course, this has been known as the practice of meditation, and different religions expect different things from it, but right now its greatest gift to me is the margin of time.

Here’s to working with margin in all the valuable resources of our lives!